What true brand bravery looks like, according to marketers who took the leap
A bolder voice for leadership, a willingness to do things off the cuff and an ear toward cultural conversations were among the strategies dispensed at Advertising Week this year.
The big discussion last week at the annual gathering of the advertising industry in New York City — and maybe for the marketing world, in general — was the necessity for brands to be more brave. Demands for this sort of risk-taking, not only in businesses' closer alignment with political and social causes, but also in their breaking from traditional means of marketing, are quickly growing as trust in institutions like the government and media continues to degrade.
A quick glance at the Advertising Week New York agenda reveals how pressing the subject was, with a litany of panels carrying titles like "The Value of Activating Brave," "Leave Room for Risk" and "Redefining Bravery: Understanding Perspectives to Move the Conversation Forward." The dividends of successfully brave campaigns were readily apparent amid conference discussions, while potential failures were still seen as carrying valuable lessons in figuring out what today's conscious consumers want from brands.
"We have to admit that the reason that so much work is being rewarded in our industry, and so many brands are leaning toward more cause-related work, is because the world is reeling," Keith Cartwright, executive creative director at the agency 72andSunny and founder of the nonprofit Saturday Morning, said during a panel about bravery. "I think it's up to businesses to find ways to help."
However, a braver approach to marketing also requires stronger gut-level instincts, where marketers must decide when to stop examining their data and simply take a leap into the unknown. Coincidentally, Advertising Week came roughly a month after Nike released a campaign starring the NFL player and activist Colin Kaepernick, which made for a hot topic of discussion on panels and on the showroom floor across the conference's four days.
Nike's push, which resulted in backlash, threats of boycotts and, most significantly, a surge in positive social sentiment and sales for the retailer, served as a bellwether on several panels for the benefits of brands getting more brave. The campaign, created with the agency Wieden+Kennedy, was also reportedly almost killed by executives who were fearful of controversy, pointing to the careful considerations of tone, brand history and partnerships marketers must account for in adopting a bolder positioning.
"When the [Nike] brand is at its best, it's mostly giving its platform to the voice of an athlete," Colleen DeCourcy, partner and global executive creative director at Wieden+Kennedy, said during the panel with Cartwright and Procter & Gamble's Marc Pritchard.
"There is a long history of that in the brand, and I felt like rather than being an explosive new thing that Nike was doing, it was so fundamentally true to the core of what the brand has done from the beginning," she said.
Change comes from the top
Consumers looking to brands like Nike for guidance on important issues appears to only be growing more common. The same week as the conference, Edelman released results of a survey of consumers across the globe that found that 53% believe brands can do more to solve social problems than governments.
Most brands don't have background in addressing weighty issues, but many today have more resources to do so. Some executives at Advertising Week viewed growing cynicism toward traditional institutions as an opportunity for businesses to fill a vacuum in trust.
"What we do matters, and it matters more than ever," Pritchard said. "If you think about [it], there's $600 billion in the advertising world. We touch everybody on the planet."
P&G has more frequently leaned into social causes over the past several years, including recent marketing efforts like "The Talk," which examines discussions black parents have with their kids around racial biases.
"The integration of leadership and brands, that's what people expect today. They really want to know who is behind the brand."
Chief brand officer, Procter & Gamble
But beyond campaign creative, Pritchard emphasized that marketing leaders like CMOs must be brave in living out the values they espouse to build trust with their teams.
"The integration of leadership and brands, that's what people expect today," Pritchard said. "They really want to know who is behind the brand ... they want to know what our values are, what we care about."
The executive shared a personal story of how, for years, he chose to downplay his mixed-race heritage for fear of being judged, leading to a lesson in the privilege he'd been afforded in passing as a white man.
"Last year was the first time that I publicly proclaimed — proudly — I'm Mexican-American," Pritchard said. "It gave emotional safety to the organization. When you have emotional safety, people have conversations, and when you have conversations, you get better work."
When "The Talk" experienced harsh backlash from consumers flustered that a CPG marketer was discussing race, Pritchard said that rather than backing away, P&G doubled down on ad spending and PR behind the campaign in a moment he viewed as brave.
"The reason why we did this is because we wanted to have conversations ... that leads to attitude change," Pritchard said. "That wouldn't come if leaders can't come to grips with their own personal stuff and aren't willing to go ahead and weather the storm."
Walking the walk
Marketers at Advertising Week also reinforced that being "brave" doesn't necessarily mean throwing a hat in the political ring. Instead, the concept seemed focused on breaking from traditional means of marketing in an organizational sense, in messaging strategy and in the ways creative ideas incubate.
"[Bravery] requires not just talking the talk but also walking the walk," Amy Randall, co-head of social impact practice and EVP of marketing and communications at Propper Daley, said in emailed comments around the show. "To do this, a brand must conduct an honest inventory of business practices, CSR initiatives, HR policies, employee interests and consumer insights, and holistically determine which elements live up to their values and worldview, and which don't."
Any of these approaches must come from a desire for genuine change, panelists cautioned, or else they'll read as tone-deaf with consumers.
"If you're going to go live with a particular belief about your brand and your business, you better believe it more than making money, because otherwise consumers are going to start to point that out to you," said Charles Trevail, CEO of the brand consultancy Interbrand, when introducing a panel.
That's not to say brand bravery is a purely altruistic endeavor. Edelman, in its 2018 Earned Earned Brand survey, found that 64% of consumers now purchase from or boycott a brand due to its political and social stances. Part of the interest in Nike's Kaepernick campaign wasn't just the creative's audacity, but also how it immediately correlated to performance, with the retailer experiencing a 31% boost in online sales and an uptick in store traffic in the days following launch, according to third-party analyses.
A closer ear to the ground
Stemming from that, developing braver campaigns might also demand marketers be able to better read into consumer conversations. Several brands at the show, including Kraft Heinz, Anheuser-Busch and L'Oréal, outlined how they've seen success by tapping into cultural moments via social listening teams and similar tactics that go directly to the consumer for inspiration.
"Data and tools can help test the waters, but [they] cannot be solely relied on to dictate when a brand should take a stand."
Anheuser-Busch recently established what it calls a "newsroom," which helped key Bud Light into a discussion around giving away free beer to the city of Philadelphia if the Eagles won the Super Bowl. The Eagles won, and the campaign ended up being one of the most successful in the brand's history. Similarly, Kraft Heinz turned social chatter around a ketchup-mayonnaise blend into a prop for promoting its first-ever mayonnaise product stateside, driving more than 2.3 billion impressions.
"To write any good story starts with knowing your audience," Sivonne Davis, VP of marketing at L'Oréal USA, said during a panel about engaging conscious consumers. "For me, it's also about talking to consumers. Whether it's during, before or after you're developing your storyline, they need to be included in that conversation."
At the same time, bravery also requires marketers to not be so wed to data that they test everything to death. João Chueiri, VP of consumer connections at Anheuser-Busch, noted that Bud Light's Eagles success was not prepared months in advance, and only soared as high as it did due to the company's flexibility in responding to the unexpected.
"Data and tools can help test the waters, but [they] cannot be solely relied on to dictate when a brand should take a stand," Cathy Butler, CEO of the agency Barbarian, said in emailed comments after the conference. "Sometimes data tools aren't necessarily needed to assess a situation — it's cultural timing and backbone ... a strong brand health index doesn't hurt either."
Spreading a small idea far
Another misconception about bravery that marketers tried to dispel at Advertising Week was one of scale. Bravery summons to mind big, splashy campaigns, but those aren't necessarily what consumers want. Edelman found that 56% of survey respondents think marketers spend too much time looking for ways to "force" them to pay attention, and that messages delivered via earned media were more successful than both paid advertising and owned channels in engaging people.
Category disruptors and direct-to-consumer startups are also leading many legacy brands in categories like CPG to rethink how they make an impact.
"The days in which I have a $15 billion brand launch are gone," Magen Hanrahan, VP of media and marketing services at the Kraft Heinz Company, said on a panel about the value of brand risk. "We've actually had the conversation internally as we've talked about launching new brands. I can't have the same sales expectations as I did [previously] when I launched these huge campaigns."
Bud Light's Eagles push didn't roll out with a major TV media play, but with a single tweet responding to a player's comments around free beer, with earned coverage and football fans doing a lot of the heavy lifting in raising awareness. Heinz's own Real Mayonnaise launch serves as another case study for how a little can go a long way for brands in a connected world.
The packaged foods giant asked consumers on Twitter if they would want Mayochup, which already existed in other countries, to come to the U.S. after a Heinz brand manager noticed chatter about the product surfacing in the U.K. The company tweeted out a poll a few hours after seeing the discussion, promising that if the poll received 500,000 votes in favor of Mayochup, Heinz would bring the spread stateside.
"We didn't even know how we would actually make the product at that point," Michelle St. Jacques, head of U.S. brand and research and development at the Kraft Heinz Company, said during the panel with Hanrahan. St. Jacques detailed how the poll sparked intense discussion, with many consumers strongly against the condiment's name or grossed out by its concept.
"When you do these [campaigns] and they do hit the chord or they drive all of that buzz, then the ROI [is] even better than what you would get on your typical proven assets."
Michelle St. Jacques
Head of U.S. brand and R&D, the Kraft Heinz Company
Rather than retreating from potential backlash, Heinz leaned into the divided opinion on Mayochup, eventually netting extensive coverage on late-night shows, broadcast news and across digital media. St. Jacques returned frequently to the novelty that Mayochup wasn't even the product being marketed, and how Heinz's Real Mayonnaise got a boost by being attached to discussions about the more controversial sauce blend.
"It all started with a simple tweet. This whole campaign was, again, under $150,000, even with media behind it," St. Jacques said. "It was a sort of simple idea, the bravery of that brand manager going out there and putting it in the world three hours later."
Ditching fear of failure
Since Mayochup officially started shipping several weeks ago, Heinz has seen another 1.5 billion impressions, according to St. Jacques. The executive, however, urged those in attendance not to be so centered on results and KPIs when striving to be brave.
"When you do these [campaigns] and they do hit the chord or they drive all of that buzz, then the ROI [is] even better than what you would get on your typical proven assets," St. Jacques said. "The challenge is, you don't always know if you're going to get an idea that's going to hit it out of the park."
"That's part of the culture we want to create," she added. "It's just people getting out there and trying … the worst thing is that you don't try at all because you just want to rely on the things you know."
Follow Peter Adams on Twitter